Three students — Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl and Gordon Bowker — became friends while attending college together at the University of San Francisco in the early 1970s. The threesome met a young entrepreneur named Alfred Peet, who impressed them with his knowledge of roasting coffee beans. Peet, in fact, had already started his own coffee shop in Berkeley, California, a few years earlier.

What all four of these young entrepreneurs noticed was that much of the U.S. marketplace had not been introduced to the many different types of coffees found in Europe and other parts of the world. After seeing the success Peet had with his store, Baldwin, Siegl and Bowker moved up to Seattle and started their own coffeehouse in 1971, which they named Starbucks.

It is always interesting to find out how major corporations, such as Starbucks, which now has nearly 25,000 locations around the world, got started. However, from a business perspective, what is far more fascinating and of value to owners is how Starbucks Corporation became so successful.

By coincidence, I was also attending the University of San Francisco in the early 1970s. While I never met the soon-to-be founders of Starbucks, what I do remember is that there were coffeehouses all over the city, all marketing unusual coffees from around the world. Most, if not all, of those coffeehouses are now long gone, but Starbucks and Peet’s survived and have obviously thrived.

What did they do differently to make this happen? And what can professional carwashes around the country learn from Starbucks? The answer is actually rather simple: Starbucks is more than a coffeehouse. Starbucks creates an “experience” for its customers, and that approach has worked for more than 45 years.

Creating a culture

The founders of Starbucks say that from the start they wanted to make their customers feel comfortable in their stores. They wanted their stores to be relaxed, warm and inviting — a place where people could meet their friends and hang around for a while and a place they would tell other friends about. It was not so much about the coffee that they were selling; it was about the experience of being in one of their stores.

Once created, this customer experience had to be predictable and replicated in all the stores so that customers in Hong Kong would have the same Starbucks experience as customers in Seattle. Additionally, the experience was not based just on the look and feel of the stores. It also involved how the staff in each store looked, acted and conducted themselves in front of customers as well as how they maintained the stores. These factors all combined to make Starbucks the brand it is today.

So, how did they do this and how can you replicate something similar in your carwash?

First and foremost, just as the founders of Starbucks did, carwash owners need an idea, or a concept, of how they want their carwashes to look and feel for their customers. But before any updates can be made, you must find out what customers think of the facility as it is today.

Answer these questions:

  • Who are most of your customers?
  • What is the first thing you see when you drive into your carwash?
  • What initial impressions of the site do you have?

See what the survey says

To get a more accurate picture of what your customers think, conduct a survey. Some questions to ask include the following:

  • What do you like most about our facility?
  • What do you like least about the facility?
  • Do you feel safe using this carwash?
  • Do you feel you will have a pleasant experience here?
  • Do you feel comfortable that your car will be well cared for and clean when the job is done?

Related article: Guest post blog: Putting customer experience in carwash branding

Contact points — those times when customers come in contact with staff and the facility — must also be evaluated. Ask your customers to rate the following:

  • How well were you greeted when you came into the waiting room? Promptly? Politely?
  • Did the staff greet you using words such as “Sir” or “Miss”?
  • Was the waiting room clean or messy? Well-lit or dark?
  • Were chairs comfortable?
  • If food and beverage are provided, were enough paper goods, including cups, napkins and plates, made available?

With the surveys complete, it is time to evaluate all the responses. In some cases, the responses may differ based on which part of the facility is being graded. For example, the outdoor look of your facility may receive mostly positive reviews, while the interior receives lower scores. Or, the waiting room may get good marks but the restroom does not.

Whatever the outcome is for your particular store, you now know where work is needed. These issues must be addressed before any customer experience can be created. And if you have multiple locations, your goal now is to take these corrections and reproduce them in each store.

The personnel contact points

Along with the physical appearance of your carwash and how customers feel using it, your customers’ interactions with the staff are also key. Now, you might think your customers only ever talk to a greeter or cashier and rarely interact with the technicians — and that may be true.

“But what counts here is how they look,” says Dennis Knapp, director of product development at Impact Products LLC. “This has a lot to do with how the customer feels about the carwash.”

According to Knapp, carwash workers should all be wearing the following:

  • Attractive clothing that is also protective when in wet as well as dry environments.
  • Safety shoes or boots. Not only will these protect the worker from slips and falls, “but customers like to see that you have taken steps to ensure the safety of your staff; that shows you care.”
  • Eye gear to prevent any chemical spills and splashes from getting into workers’ eyes (in work areas only). “Don’t just select plain ‘goggles.’ I recommend selecting stylish eye gear. This makes workers feel good about the way they look, and if all workers are wearing them, it can even help ‘brand’ your carwash.”

Knapp also suggests that safety signs be posted in strategic areas throughout the carwash.

Just as the safety shoes and boots worn by the staff indicate to customers you care about your staff’s safety, “the safety signs show you care about your customers and want them to have a safe, pleasant experience at your facility.”

Final touches for the customer experience

With these steps implemented, you are on your way to creating a pleasant and memorable customer experience. Some finishing touches to consider — to help make the customer experience even better — include the following:

  • Place an attractive, durable and slip-resistant mat on the floor of your now attractive waiting area.
  • Serve cookies, popcorn, etc. Freshly baked cookies or popcorn help brand your location; the kids will want to come to your carwash, bringing mom and dad’s business.
  • Serve bottled water, tea and coffee in quality cups. Make sure attractive napkins are available and not just stacked on a table but on a nice tray.
  • Consider some music, soft but upbeat.
  • Train your staff to remember customers’ names; this always impresses customers.

A customer “experience” is a living, breathing thing. While it may not look like Starbucks locations have changed much, over the years the company has made subtle updates to please its customers. You too should continue to update your customer experience over time.


Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning and building industries.